At first glance, the treats seemed harmless enough: palm-sized bags of brightly colored candies resembling the popular Nerds brand, with “Prescribed Medibles by Dr. Greenbuds” in playful text on the front label.
Packets of the candies began to circulate on Saturday morning among attendees at EST Fest, a two-day outdoor music festival in central Ohio. Concertgoers said someone had a backpack loaded with the packets and was tossing them out to the crowd.
It’s unclear how many of the roughly 3,000 people at the festival ate the candies, but by late-afternoon 24 concertgoers had been hospitalized for fatigue and other “unusual symptoms,” the Mansfield News Journal reported. Paramedics initially treated the victims for opioid overdoses, but stopped when lab tests on the candies showed only high concentrations of THC, the active ingredient in cannabis.
By the end of the night, authorities found the person they believe was responsible. Matthew Gross, 28, of Ypsilanti, Mich., was arrested Saturday and charged with felony drug trafficking, according to the News Journal.
Police say a witness saw Gross throwing the candy packets into the crowd at Ohio Dreams, the action sports venue in Butler, Ohio, that hosted EST Fest. The witness took pictures of Gross and gave them to security officers, who used them to identify Gross among the throngs of people dancing and partying at an event billed as “The Last Weekend On Earth.”
After being detained, Gross reportedly let sheriff’s deputies search his backpack, where they found two bags of the candy, in addition to bags he had on his person. At first, Gross denied they were his, but later told deputies he was helping to pass them out because he was part of the candy’s “brand,” Cleveland.com reported. He then changed his story again, saying he was giving them out because he heard the parking lot and exit were closed, according to Cleveland.com.
Authorities said Gross turned over two identification cards showing he was licensed in Michigan to grow and possess marijuana. Deputies are reportedly asking for Gross’s bond to be set at $50,000.
Both Michigan and Ohio have laws regulating marijuana for medical use, but possession or distribution for non-medical purposes is a crime in both states.
The packages Gross is accused of giving out contained about 20 candies each and started circulating at the festival between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. on Saturday, Richland County Sheriff’s Maj. Joe Masi said in a news conference that afternoon.
One or two pieces would have been enough to get someone high, but some people ate entire packs, authorities said.
It wasn’t long before concertgoers started having bad reactions. By afternoon, firefighters had received numerous reports of people with “unusual symptoms” beyond a typical marijuana high, according to the News Journal.
One of the people hospitalized was Amy Fabian, who told an ABC affiliate that she ate one and quickly became disoriented and had trouble breathing.
“I felt like I was everywhere at once,” Fabian said. “And it was not a good feeling.”
Around 4 p.m., ambulances reportedly began transporting victims to OhioHealth Hospital in Mansfield, where paramedics treated them with naloxone, a drug used to combat heroin and oxycodone overdoses.
Word spread quickly among concertgoers.
“These edibles are laced with opiates,” one attendee posted (incorrectly) on Instagram, along with a photo of the candy.
“Do not take this … Not safe!” posted another.
The scare at EST Fest came as Ohio authorities have raised the alarm about carfentanil, a powerful elephant tranquilizer, making its way into heroin supplies, and in some cases being sold as heroin itself. In July, a central Ohio man was charged with selling a batch of carfentanil that caused one death and nine non-fatal overdoses. The tranquilizer has also been linked to overdoses in Akron and Cincinnati, the Associated Press reported.
In total, 24 EST Fest concertgoers were admitted to the hospital after eating the candies. When none responded to the naloxone treatments, paramedics sent the candies to the Mansfield Police Department crime lab to be tested, the News Journal reported. Results showed no opioids but lots of THC.
“Each had a very, very high dose,” Masi said. The crime lab director had never seen such a high concentration, he said.
In the end, no one lost consciousness or died, according to authorities.
“Whoever passed these out,” Masi said, “did not give the people any instructions.”
Editor’s note: The original version of this story made reference to a company called MichOrganics. MichOrganics says it has no connection with the man arrested in Ohio or with the events at the concert so the reference has been removed.